Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1855)

I reckon Elizabeth Gaskell is the third-best-known female Victorian writer, after George Elliot and the Brontës.  Is it sexist to count “the Brontës” as a single entity?  Well, everyone does it.  Anyway, it seemed like a good idea to read her, and this seems to be her best-known novel.
It’s about a woman, Margaret Hale, the daughter of a pastor at a church in England’s rural south.  Her father, having an extremely vaguely-defined crisis of conscience, feels compelled to leave the church and move to town in the industrial north, where he gets work as a classics tutor.  She’s upset by the grimy social realism, and when she meets the owner of a manufacturing concern, Mr. Thornton, whom her father is tutoring, sparks fly.  They have differing opinions as to the ethics of industry.  There is romantic tension.  And...like that.

I found this interesting because I’d never really read a Victorian novel that really tried to delve into the ins and outs of industrial working conditions and management/worker relations the way this does.  Dickens’ Hard Times--one of the main Dickens novels that people read nowadays, because short—is concerned about these things in a general way, but it’s light on specifics.  This one is somewhat less so.

I have to say, though, I found its general attitude towards these issues to vere between paternalistic and naive.  Thornton is a sort of proto-John-Galt-ish self-made man, who prides himself on being hard but fair and like that.  There’s a threatened strike looming, and he’s just generally pissed off that the workers are doing this, when there are VERY GOOD REASONS they’re not getting paid more; he literally compares them to sullen children who need a despot to rule over them good and hard (and when the strike comes, he has NO PROBLEM bussing in scabs, and Gaskell seems to have no issue beyond the practical with this).  Margaret’s response to this is not to deny that they’re children, but to suggest that children need some lattitude so that they can grow up.  I like her more than him, but I don’t find either of them to be any great shakes.  There’s one subplot where a worker is sullen about having to be in the union and is eventually driven to suicide, to which Margaret asks: “would it not have been far better to have left him alone, and not forced him to join the union?  He did you no good; and you drove him mad.”  This kinda sorta suggests to me that Gaskell wasn’t one hundred percent clear on what unions are for, or how they work.  This is the kind of thinking that leads to odious right-to-work laws—though I will grant that capitalism in Gaskell’s time hadn’t quite metastasized into its current state, and that therefore maybe some things that seem obvious now seemed less so then.  Thornton does eventually learn to be more humanistic, and to see the value in employee and employer having a personal relationship, but this seems like a pretty feeble hint at a solution—no matter what pals they may be, it’s kinda hard to get around the fact that the people on one side of this equation are super-rich and the ones on the other are living in grinding poverty.  I just don’t feel that Gaskell really even comes close to addressing these issues adequately.  She's no Zola. Not that the novel has to be—or should be—a political tract, but if you’re going to touch on these things at all, I do think you should to it better than this.  

Even beyond these issues, though, I wasn’t terribly taken with the book.  The structure seems really lumpy and awkward; I have read arguments that this is mean to subvert expectations of what the novel is to be about, but while I can more or less buy that that’s the purpose of the novel’s several false starts before it moves to the main thing, I am less convinced that it can explain the love triangle that is hinted, and then flickers out, and then sorta kinda feels like its going to be rekindled in the late going but then never is.  Or the plot involving Margaret’s brother—living in enforced exile in Spain after having been involved in a mutiny, on pain of death if he returns to England—which seems like it’s going to play a major part in the procedings and then doesn’t.  If the herky-jerky plotting is meant to reflect the workings of capitalism, I don’t think it does so very effectively.

Let’s also note that, never mind Thornton; our heroine herself is no great shakes.  So there’s a part where her brother, Frederick, makes a brief sub-rosa visit because their mother is dying.  While she’s going to the train station with him to see him off, they run into a guy who, it is felt, could give him away.  Frederick shoves him off the platform and makes his escape; later, it turns out that the guy was an alcoholic and the fall somehow exacerbated this and killed him (you’ve got to expect somewhat dubious medical happenings in nineteenth-century novels), and when a police inspector comes by because someone thinks they saw her with the guy who pushed him, she denies having been there.  And then, for the rest of the novel, she obsesses about how horrific and unforgivable this lie was.  SO WHAT IF YOU’D TOLD THE TRUTH AND YOUR BROTHER HAD BEEN CAPTURED AND HANGED WOULD THAT MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER?  The fact that—it is later revealed—he wasn’t in any real danger seems to be neither here nor there.  Bah.

Ultimately, this novel is of more sociological than literary value, and even that only goes so far.  I feel like I’ve now probably read enough Gaskell to last a lifetime.  There seems little doubt that one of these days I’ll return to Trollope and Collins, but here, I feel like I’m DONE.


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